The Blog

Inside the District's Red Lights

Red-light cameras are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought. Part 1 in a series.

11:00 PM, Mar 31, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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In fact, these working cops aren't technically working cops. They're off-duty cops, getting paid overtime that is covered by the city's camera contractor, Lockheed Martin IMS. At the time of my outing, Lockheed is responsible for maintaining the equipment, processing the data, and sending out the citations--which entitles them to $32.50 out of every $75 red-light-camera ticket and $29 of every photo-radar ticket. (Since then, Lockheed sold their national automated enforcement business to Affiliated Computer Services in Dallas, with the same profit arrangement applying.) Proponents of the system like to point out that the whole operation doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. Cynics could contend that it's cost taxpayers and commuters quite a few dimes. As of February 2002, D.C.'s red-light camera not only collected over $15 million since August of 1999, but its photo radar program, which has only been in operation for seven months, has already netted the District a cool $9,041,295.

Other than the missing seat and police equipment, Sgt. McCoy finds that these cars "have all the amenities--the lumbar controls, a stereo with cassette player--a lot of things we don't have in a police car." Comfort is, after all, paramount in a job that requires you to do almost nothing. The officer's only real task is to aim the radar, which shoots a 5 degree-wide, 22 ft.-high beam across the street that bounces off passing cars, back to a slotted wave-guide antenna triggering the camera. Police additionally set a speed threshold--today's will net only people going at least 11 mph over the speed limit (though the officers are unclear whether the speed limit is 25 or 30 mph at our location). After these preliminaries, the only remaining concern is making sure you have enough coffee to wash down your bearclaw.

McCoy says conventional traffic patrolling is labor intensive, forcing officers to pull people over, "run their names, so on and so forth." Photo radar, he says, is quite the opposite. "You come in, set it up, sit back, read a magazine." When the camera begins its work, Officer Cephas erupts in dark laughter. Though today the equipment is aimed only at receding traffic, Cephas offers, "This thing can get everybody going in both directions." "Ca-Chzzzt! Ca-Chzzzt!" he says, mimicking the whirring of the camera, which sounds like a horde of paparazzi covering a movie premiere.

When asked if they would pull over most of the people the camera is shooting, the officers say no. "Thing is," says Cephas, "the speed limit's 25, but people just constantly drive with the flow of traffic." "We know everybody drives over the speed limit," adds McCoy, "so you have some tolerance." At that moment, a fellow officer whizzes by, waving. "No discrimination here," says McCoy pointing to the camera, which likely just captured their colleague racking up a citation. While emergency vehicles are supposed to be exempt from paying fines, even ambulance drivers and fire trucks get tickets. (The Washington Times recently reported that a raft of tickets earned by D.C. police has actually slowed their response time on calls.) "If George Bush comes through here," laughs Cephas, "he's gonna get it too."

After only half an hour, the camera has clicked pictures that could result in 100 citations, though today is the last day of a month-long warning period (fines won't be issued for another week). McCoy says it would take a human cop roughly two-and-a-half days of brisk patrolling to generate that many tickets. After such an excursion, one can see Chief Ramsey's point, that automated enforcement frees up police to carry out other important tasks, such as going on cable television to talk about how they've had no breaks in the Chandra Levy case.